The climber’s foot, in the scheme of horrors, is up there. We are not talking murdered-body-cut-into-pieces-and-stuffed-into-a-44-gallon-drum-type horror, more an everyday malformed ugliness. Why are the feet of climbers so unfortunate? The answer is common to all those with disasters for feet – ballet dancers, the wives of wealthy 17th-century Chinese dudes and climbers – tight shoes.
Climbers like tight shoes. Very tight shoes. For example, my running shoes are a European 46.5, while my climbing shoes are 42 (US 9.5), more than four sizes smaller. And I have relaxed in my old age compared to the constriction fervour of my 20s, when I used to wear nothing bigger than a 41. At one point I even managed to squeeze myself into slippers (good old Boreal Ninjas) that were 39.5, although I could only get them on when I lined my feet with plastic bags. Unfortunately, the 39.5s were so painful that I could never actually climb in them, and ended up having to give them to my little brother.
The tightness of shoes can become a real obsession for climbers. But it does pass with age and wisdom. I used to dread wearing-in a new pair of climbing shoes. Often to ease the pain of the process I would wear them while watching TV (to the amusement of my girlfriend), which seemed to soften the transition to standing in them on small holds. And it is not just the tightness, it is also the bendiness. Climbing shoe companies like to bend your foot so that it shaped like a talon – good for gripping the rock on steep ground but not so great for your feet. My feet certainly don’t like it. Even with my generous size-42s often the first time I put my foot in the shoe, the muscles in the arch cramp and I have to pull them out and stretch them before trying again. The other outcome of having bendy shoes is that when I heel-hook hard I often get a painful cramp in my calf. (I know, poor me.)
The obsession with tight shoes does have an endpoint that people eventually end up at. My mate Marc is a good example. His obsession followed the usual trajectory – the buying of ever-tighter shoes until finally, he was using plastic bags to get them on. Then on one trip to Nowra he came away with a brand new pair of La Sportiva Taos. On the first day of our week-long trip he realised that he had gone too tight – he couldn’t physically bear the pain of wearing them. We ended up sharing my shoes for the entire trip, which probably ended up with his feet being introduced to several new members of the fungi kingdom.
Because of this obsession with tight shoes the catalogue of disasters befalling the climber’s foot is long: corns, bunions, dry and flaking skin, twisted toes, toe rot, pitted keratosis, I won’t go on. The bunions on some climbers can get so bad they look like their feet belong to a hobbit. The worst bunions have to be cleaned up with a chisel by an orthopedic butcher.
And in my time I have seen some ugly feet. The worst belonged to a Natimuk climber who walked everywhere in bare feet – a common affectation of the Pines-dwelling long-termer – her feet flaked dead skin in thick, filth-encrusted sheets that had to be trimmed back with a pair of nail scissors.
Mind you, some people take a sick delight in this kind of thing. Coming back from six weeks of climbing in Europe many years ago – and having spent a lot of time in climbing shoes – I stopped off for a week in Hong Kong with my wife’s family. My mother-in-law took me for a Shanghai pedicure in the local shopping centre. For those unfamiliar with a Shanghai pedicure, it involves soaking your feet in hot water until the skin softens, then they basically slice off your dead skin with a variety of sharp tools that look like they would be equally useful to a CIA rendition team, this is followed by a foot and calf massage.
When my socks were removed an excited gaggle of pedicurists gathered around them pointing, laughing and babbling in Cantonese. I don’t think they had seen so much dead skin for some time (mind you, I don’t think the life of a pedicurist is the most exciting existence). Although the thumbs of a Shanghai pedicurist rival a climber’s foot for ugliness, having the most massive bunions on them from giving knuckle massages all day. I would have laughed and pointed except for the fact the guy was using a razor blade on my feet at the time.
The tightness of shoes has other repercussions. Try falling from a great height off a boulder and landing badly, with all of the shock absorption of a few billion years of evolution muffled by boa constrictor-tight climbing shoes all that energy has to go somewhere like the knees or the ankles.
Fortunately, shoe technology has improved since I first started climbing, and the best performance shoes, while best fitted tight, don’t have to be slipped on with plastic bags due to improvements in design, particularly because of fancy panelling that shapes the shoe and new materials that stretch or don’t stretch as needed. Despite all this, shoes still need to be pretty tight compared to what most non-ballerinas are used to – the price of performance is some pain, but somehow it seems worth it. In fact, half the satisfaction of doing a route is often slipping your shoes off at the end.
Buying Your First Pair of Climbing Shoes
If you’re buying your first pair of climbing shoes we highly recommend buying them from a retailer that offers expert advice. Buying climbing shoes can be tricky when you’re not used to tight shoes. The border between a perfect fit and too tight or loose can be fine. An experienced shoe fitter will also be able to tell you about the materials that each shoe is made from, and how much the shoe will stretch or give. For instance, leather can stretch as much a full size whereas synthetic materials often just give a little rather than stretch. How much a shoe will stretch will also depend on how much rubber it is coated with as well, the more rubber glued on the less it will stretch. And importantly an experienced fitter will also help you to discern what brands or models are best suited to the shape of your foot.
A lot of beginners also want to fit straight into the most high-performance shoes, but it’s important to be aware that a lot of the top range shoes bend the foot into shapes that take quite a bit of getting used to. Most beginners are best of buying a flat lasted (rather than slip lasted) shoe that’s fairly supportive and has plenty of rubber as you will lose a lot of rubber to sloppy footwork.
Some shops will let you take a pair of shoes home and wear them around the house to see whether they’re the right fit, then you can bring them back if you decide they’re too tight. Generally, though, it’s more common for beginners to buy shoes too loose because they’re just not used to tight shoes. Our advice is to buy shoes a little bit uncomfortably tight, and then they will usually stretch just a bit to become comfortable (for a climbing shoe, don’t compare them to a street shoe).